We achieved everything we ever wanted and more. We’ve built technologies which elevate humanity to the status of gods. We’ve tamed and controlled nature to align with our needs, and built industrial playgrounds for the flourishing of economic progress and industry.
Yet underneath the bright screens, fancy clothes and luxury cars lies an individual who is deeply disconnected with the world. They pride themselves in their status but are unable to authentically connect with others. They feel like strangers in their own society, feeling the pull to conform with the latest trends in consumer products.
I do not wish to seem naïve or ignorant. I of course value the comforts and opportunities that living in the 21st century has afforded me. However, despite all this exponential progress, I think we have to remember what we have lost in modernity. With our laser focus economic growth and individualism we have abandoned our need for genuine connection, community and wisdom.
One of the movies which explores the issues that we still wrestle with today is Fight Club. Originally adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Fight Club tells the story of a depressed middle-aged man who desperately seeks to escape the chains of a monotonous consumer-based culture. The narrator and his imaginary alter-ego (known as Tyler Durden) starts a fight club as an attempt to liberate themselves from nihilism and existential dread.
Let’s look at some of the key quotes and themes of the movie to see how it applies in our modern-day society.
Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need, and the things you own, end up owning you.
The endless flow of advertisements that we are flooded with in our day to day lives try to subvert the distinction between want and need.
We too easily fall into the trap of the hedonic treadmill. The luxury items we purchase soon loose their glamour, status and prestige. We feel like we have to keep up with the latest trends to gain acceptance and approval from our peers.
In an attempt to gain status or recognition from society, we needlessly spend a fortune on luxury brands when much cheaper goods can fulfill the same exact function. A Rolex and a plastic watch purchased from a convenience store, while widely differ in price, both perform the same purpose of telling time.
It is like we are running after a moving target.
However, few realize that no purchase can ever fully quench our desires – the void remains unfilled.
Alienation and the Loss of Community
This was freedom. Losing all hope was freedom. If I didn’t say anything, people in a group assumed the worst. They cried harder. I cried harder. Look up into the stars and you’re gone. Walking home after a support group, I felt more alive than I’d ever felt.
To deal with his insomnia the narrator frequently attends various different support groups. Devoid of any social life or genuine friendships, these groups provide him with a sense of connection , community and companionship.
Despite the low cost of connectivity in our society, the issues of loneliness and isolation in our society have been well documented. A trend which is most prevalent with middle-aged men.
The sociologist Robert Putnam talks about a decline in what he calls ‘social capital’. That is, the social bonds, connections and networks which he argues is responsible for a loss of trust in political and societal institutions.
Putnam notes that the social fabric, that ties us together as individuals in a society, has been eroding in the later half of the twentieth century. In his book Bowling Alone, his research points to several trends which he claims are responsible for this decline including: the proliferation of electronic entertainment, suburban sprawl and changes to family structure.
The consequences of this for our individual and collective wellbeing are dire. Perhaps this has been most evident in recent years, as we have become more polarized and divisive, unable to compromise and empathize with others.
Yes, we have gained more individual freedoms and liberties, but we have become more isolated and egotistical. We have pursued individualism and self-interest at the cost of meaning and belonging that comes with being in a community.
Nihilism: The Loss of Meaning
We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression.
The irony of the film is that the men who joined Fight Club as a means to escape the chains of consumerism, end up being drawn into another ideological group, Project Mayhem.
We must ask the question why are our minds so easily manipulated? Why do we so easily move from one dogma to another?
When individuals lose purpose or meaning in their lives, they can be more suspectable to be seduced by extremism and reactionary political ideologies. The most frightening examples of this of course can be seen in the rise of the totalitarian regimes in the 20th century.
As mentioned in several of my other articles, John Vervaeke as well as many other thinkers, attributes this crisis in meaning to the loss of wisdom and spiritual practices that were provided to us mainly through religions. With the erosion of many of our spiritual and cultural traditions through the secularization of modern society , many of us come face to face with what Victor Frankl called the ‘existential vacuum’. Frankl says these feelings of existential angst are manifested through boredom and distress. While our modern culture tells us we ought to fill this void through the pursuit of short-term hedonistic pleasures, Frankl reminds us that the solution rather is to pursue what is truly meaningful for us.
Admittingly, this article presents a pretty gloomy depiction of modern life. However, I do see the emergence of philosophies, spiritual practices and communities that aim to help us deal the existential issues we are dealing with in the modern era.
From the re-emergence of interest in Eastern practices such as meditation and yoga, to the revival of ancient Greek philosophy such as Stoicism and to the research being done in the possibilities of psychedelics to address the mental health crisis, I see a thirst for wisdom and meaning on the horizon.
The present may be grim, but I remain an optimist.
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